What parents need to know to keep their kids safe on the world’s most used education app.
Chances are, when your child goes back to school this year, in person, online, or both, they are going to be asked to use Google Classroom to keep assignments and teacher-student communication organized. While many schools in the United States have been using the free Google service for many years, school closures and restrictions related Covid-19 have made distance learning, remote learning, homeschooling, home education and so on, a normal part of parents’, teachers’ and children’s lives and have expanded Google Classroom’s reach to a global level. The most-used edtech application, Google Classroom owes its success to this accelerated digital transformation to distance learning, its $0 price tag and its easy integration with Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Drive and other products part of Google’s G Suite for Education.
As nice as that all sounds, Google Classroom has come under scrutiny for potential privacy and safety risks. To help parents know what to look out for, and to give you greater peace of mind as your child goes back to school, we put together this quick and essential guide to Google Classroom.
Qustodio’s Safety Guide to the Google Classroom management app
What is Google Classroom?
Google Classroom is an education or edtech platform in the G Suite for Education. It manages teaching and learning, but it is not a learning platform like IXL or KhanAcademy. According to Google, it “helps students and teachers organize assignments, boost collaboration, and foster better communication.” For example, with the Classroom app, kids can upload assignments and teachers can collect the work, give feedback, and give grades, in real time, from their classrooms or their phones.
Is Google Classroom safe?
Parents and privacy groups have been complaining for many years that Google was using its education products to track schoolchildren without full transparency in regards to its data-mining practices and without explicit parental consent. In response, Google agreed in 2015 to sign a voluntary industry pledge on student privacy. In it, Google promised:
- Not to collect, maintain, use or share student personal information beyond that needed for educational purposes;
- Not to use student information collected from its education services for behavioral ad targeting;
- And, not to retain students’ personal information beyond the time that the children were in school unless they received parental consent.
Recently, the state of New Mexico filed a lawsuit against Google saying that Google broke those promises. The state's attorney general believes Google collects and uses a lot more student data than it admits, and says it is invading children’s privacy through educational products it provides to the state’s schools, claiming it tracks students' online activities on their personal devices when they're not using Google Classroom for school – violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and the state’s Unfair Practices Act.
Similarly, last year, Google LLC and its subsidiary YouTube paid a record $170 million to settle allegations by the Federal Trade Commission and the New York Attorney General that the YouTube video sharing service illegally collected personal information from children without their parents’ consent.
All the media and legislative attention should work in parents’ and children’s favor, forcing Google to be more transparent about what data it collects and what it does with it. After examining the G Suite for Education Privacy Notice, we’re confident that children (K-12) using Google Classroom provided by the school are protected by rules that forbid Google from tracking and collecting student data beyond what's necessary for educational purposes.
However, where we have our doubts is in regards to the protection of data beyond K-12. It’s also not clear what happens if your child is using Google Classroom with a personal Gmail account (not one provided by the school). For these cases it looks like Google may collect and track their data (sites they visit, what they watch, their location, etc.), and serve them ads.
And then there is the risk from third parties. While Google states that it doesn't share or sell student data to partners, it does leave room for a “few exceptional circumstances described in the G Suite agreement”. In short, though complicated and unlikely, third parties could collect information from your child and use that data for profiling or targeting.
What can parents do to keep Google Classroom safe for kids?
- Contact your child’s school and find out what information it is sharing with Google (This is also a good time to find out who else your school shares data with).
- Make sure your child is using a Google Classroom account provided by the school, not a personal Gmail account.
- Get access to your child’s personal information and delete anything you are not comfortable sharing (note: a photo and some information are required to use Classroom). If your child has a school account, you will have to talk to the school administrator. If using a personal Gmail account, you can adjust privacy settings on their Google Account page.
- Limit or block the child’s access to any features or services you are not comfortable with. For example, if the school has enabled YouTube, you’ll want to be sure it is set to “restricted mode”. As with the personal information, you’ll need the administrator to do this for you if your child has a school account.
- If your child is graduating or changing schools, ask the administrator to delete your child’s account and data history entirely.
- If your child is also using a school-provided device, like Chromebook, your options in regard to parental control are limited. If running Google Classroom on your own device you can use apps like Qustodio to help limit screen time. If your child has been online all day doing schoolwork, it is more important than ever that they disconnect and are not online after school as well.